Photo: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Nov. 9, 2021, joined by Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad and construction workers, visited the Benton Harbor site where the first lead service lines were being replaced after her expedited commitment to replace 100% of those lines in the city in 18 months.
As she begins her fourth year in office, Governor Whitmer has an opportunity to build on past environmental successes and set the tone for an historic year of accomplishment. Thanks to significant federal COVID-relief aid and a state economy performing better than forecast, Michigan has a rare abundance of funding to attack the state’s multibillion-dollar backlog of sewer, storm, and drinking water infrastructure needs and attend to other urgent environmental needs. Here are a few ways she can strengthen public health protections and restore our environment.
Declare “The Year of Water”: Setting the stage for an unprecedented year of action on water, the governor should declare 2022 “The Year of Water” for state government. The agenda for the Year of Water approach should be governed by two core principles:
(1) all Michiganders have a paramount fundamental public interest and right to safe, clean, and affordable water under Art. 4, Section 51 and 52 of the State Constitution; and
(2) Michiganders should expect their government to uphold its solemn public trust duty to protect state waters.
Create a “Clean Water Trust Fund”: A one-time investment in sewage and drinking water systems is not enough to assure clean, safe, affordable, and accountability when it comes to the rights of citizens to Michigan’s public water. A Clean Water Trust Fund, established by statute or state constitutional amendment, would provide a long-term answer for cities and rural communities. Modeled in part after Michigan’s constitutionally protected Natural Resources Trust Fund, which dedicates a portion of state oil and gas revenue to the purchase of recreational and ecologically important land for the public, a Clean Water Trust Fund would be one of the first of its kind in the nation.
End Water service shutoffs: The pandemic has underscored the danger to human health of cutting off water service to households unable to pay their bills. Water is essential to personal health, sanitation, and dignity. Governor Whitmer took action to assure water service to thousands of households early in the pandemic. This policy should be made permanent, with funding and the trust fund oversight required to back it up.
Remove all lead service lines and lead household connections in drinking water systems: The crises in Flint and Benton Harbor have made it clear that lead in drinking water is a major public health risk, especially to our most vulnerable Michiganders—children. The governor should set a goal of replacing all lead service lines and household connections statewide within the next five years.
Aggressively tackle threats posed by PFAS “forever chemicals”: With part of the federal relief funding, the governor should propose a three-year plan to clean up orphan PFAS contamination sites where no private polluter can be identified and should call for the legislature to restore Michigan’s polluter pay law to hold accountable those who have contaminated Michigan’s land and waters. Further, she should pledge state government leadership in promoting alternatives to PFAS in products and manufacturing and firefighting.
Developing a plan to prevent further microplastics contamination of Michigan’s waters—including the water we drink: In the United States, we ingest the equivalent of one credit card a week in plastic. Tiny breakdown particles from plastics use and disposal are an environmental and public health risk. The governor should convene a working group to come up with solutions that take effect at the earliest possible time.
Continue to protect and sustain Michigan’s Great Lakes and water resources from the effects of climate change: The governor launched an integrative approach to the Great Lakes, water resources, environment and energy in MI Healthy Climate Plan. To address the devastating effects of climate change, the state must accelerate and lead this effort by building resilient green infrastructure, identifying and improving protection of floodplains and wetlands, and promoting renewable and efficient energy and services, such as net-zero carbon buildings.
The year 2022 is a chance for the governor to secure her Great Lakes, environmental, energy, and climate legacy, and to make the Year of Water a turning point for the better in Michigan’s history.